At 9:00 am on Sunday, January 15th, over 1,200 men and women crowded into the Roone Arledge Auditorium of Columbia University. The many rows of seats were quickly taken, and a host of stragglers filed upstairs to fill the overflow seating area. As event coordinators would note throughout the day, the attendance had far exceeded expectations. The main event of ninth Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Conference, a day-long program of panels, speeches, and conversation circles, was about to begin.
JOFA is an organization which, according to its mission statement, “advocates for meaningful participation and equality for women in family life, synagogues, house of learning, and Jewish communal organizations to the full extent possible within the framework of halakha.” Founded in 1997 after the great success of the first conference on Orthodoxy and feminism, the nonprofit now has over 5,500 members worldwide.
JOFA President Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus stressed the conference’s diversity in her speech at the introductory ceremony. She welcomed a diverse audience—women and men, an entire rainbow of religious affiliations including Modern Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Post-Orthodox, and even Yeshivish; people of all races and those of Ashkenazi and Sephardic heritage; young and old, from seniors to high schoolers to newborn babies; and members of the LGBT community.
While Marcus noted that JOFA has in recent years chosen to take the cause of Orthodox LGBT people under their wing, she also stressed that women in communities further behind in the “progress train” of female advancement in the Orthodox community, like those “who are still not given [a] Torah to dance with on Simchat Torah,” should not feel that JOFA has left them behind. Using a metaphor of running a race, Dr. Marcus promised that JOFA would run the race with everyone at their own pace, however close or far they were from the finish line.
The conference’s programming certainly reflected the organization’s commitment to moving forward. A Shabbaton for college leaders and arts-focused Saturday night programming at the Columbia-Barnard Hillel were both held in the lead up to Sunday’s main event. Participants at the Sunday program chose between some 53 sessions over the course of the day on topics covering education, female leadership, family life, new frontiers in feminism and wellness. Sessions included a roundtable on women and halakhic decision making with Rabba Sura Hurwitz and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a talk by Dr. Tamar Ross on the interaction between feminism, halakha, and homosexuality, and even an interfaith panel on the relationship between feminism and religiosity on a wider scale, just to name a few.
The thousand plus crowd included a small number of Yeshiva University students and alumni who attended and participated in the event. The Observer was invited to cover the conference, and in reporting, sought out these YU attendees to see what they thought. Their reactions to the conference were diverse, some fully embracing JOFA’s mission, others expressing distance between themselves and the JOFA community, while still others found themselves somewhere in the middle.
Stern College alumna Sara Rozner ‘16 led her own session at the Saturday night program, titled “Monologues from the Makom,” which gathered about 100 women in a safe space to share personal essays and poems about their sexuality, Jewish identity, and the relationship between the two.
“Often people seem to experience their gender, sexuality, and body image as something to just muddle through in silence,” Rozner expressed on the necessity of her program. “But when you create a space like this and get women talking about their experiences, people really respond. I have had people come up to me and share their relief and appreciation at hearing other people share experiences that they have also experienced, but had previously made them feel ashamed or isolated.”
On the event in general, Rozner noted that “there was a really great spirit of strength and empowerment, and I walked away with the sense that there are many ways to create the changes that I want to see in our community.”
Stern alumna Atara Steinhart ‘16 also felt uplifted by the commitment of those at the conference to bring about real change. In speaking of her favorite session of the day, a discussion of women’s leadership in the mikveh, Steinhart said, “Mikveh can be designated as a women’s place,” and with this in mind, “the speakers advocated for women to stop tolerating abuse and take charge of their mikveh experience.”
The atmosphere of the event was a friendly one—people hugging old friends and swapping information from the sessions they attended. Steinhart described the powerful feeling of sharing the same room with “1,200 people filled with passion for Torah, God, and equality.”
Oren Herschander, an alumnus of Yeshiva College ‘16, appreciated the diversity of the conference as asserted by Dr. Marcus. He enjoyed seeing “a diverse group of people who are going out of their comfort zones to learn about all different types of Jews.”
Another Yeshiva College student expressed slightly more skepticism with the self-proclaimed diversity of the conference, specifically citing the claim that the conference’s diverse audience included Yeshivish people, which he saw to be “barely accurate.”
While some Yeshiva University students expressed a bit more reservation with their experience, the naturally self-selecting group of attendees did on the whole seem to view the conference in a largely positive light. Stern College student Jordyn Kaufman reflected on the event and what it meant for her as a self-described feminist and as a YU student. “When I think of Jewish Orthodox Feminism I think of myself and my friends at YU who are feminists, but the conference completely opened up a whole other world of perspectives to me,” Kaufman remarked. “I heard a lot of things, some that I was comfortable with, some that I was uncomfortable with on a personal level, but at the end of the day I think it needed to be said and I wish more people had heard it.”
Kaufman went on to note that a lot of people still seem to view issues like female leadership, homosexuality, and transgenderism as mere “fairy tales.” To her, the discussions held at the conference would be critical for making such people face these issues and admit “this is real stuff, even if some rabbeim say something different.”
Even if the conference was slightly out of the sphere of the many of those in the YU community, students and alumni who attended felt welcomed and accepted for their backgrounds. Moshe Gelberman, a student at Yeshiva College, appreciated that “a lot of the panelists and speakers who I spoke to were very happy that we were there representing Yeshiva University as students of that institution.”
While the conference certainly did not shy away from a large number of more “hot-button” topics, not just for YU but across the Orthodox community, the majority of attendees—from YU and not—seemed to leave with a sense of both accomplishment and motivation. Whatever one thinks of the JOFA community, after a day with 1,200 of its members and leaders, it is abundantly clear: they are strong and they are energized.